Choreographer/dance maker Minna Harri interviews fellow Finnish citizen and master artist Alpo Aaltoskis

[box class=”grey_box”]Alpo Aaltokoski is showing his solo “Deep”at the Garage on May 15 and 16. [tickets here] He’s a Finnish choreographer, social worker and activist. I talked with Alpo Aaltokoski through Skype before he flew over to San Francisco. It was afternoon here but close to midnight in Helsinki. We talked for two hours about making dance in and for imperfect bodies, running for the city council, and not knowing the word “homosexual”when growing up, amongst other things. Meanwhile Alpo had a beer and smoked a cigarette. I, for my part, was charmed by an outspoken, fun person with a colorful long life both behind and ahead of him.[/box]

Here are some of the discussions we had, translated from Finnish. (I take responsibility for any errors in translation.)

M: I looked at the “Deep” trailer online and paid attention to the difference between the live dance and the video. The video is much older, made in the 90s as you pointed out. It’s been almost 20 years since Milla Moilanen and you made the video. And as we humans always keep developing and maturing it looks to me like there is a clock in the piece, ticking away as the you on the video and the live-you grow further apart from each other.

A: Exactly. I like that aspect of the work. The way my live performance is in dialogue with the video grows richer with time. I’m 54 now, and look much younger on the video. It brings layers to “Deep”and I like it.

It ties perfectly to the subject of the piece, and I hope I’ll still be showing “Deep” when I’m 90.

M: That would be great.

A: “Deep”has to do with human evolution. It deals with the similarities between humans and animals, and how we observe it. How we see what we want to see, and what we don’t want to see. So the relationship of the video and my aging body became a natural part of the piece, part of “Deep’s”evolution. I’d like to say similarly to the human evolution that is continuing naturally.

M: What intrigues me – while we are talking about human bodies and how it is of the nature, in relation to animal bodies, part of the nature – so I’m intrigued how your dancers mostly are well trained and thoroughly educated contemporary dancers, and still your movement always contains these ripples breaking the surface of“contemporary dance”. In “Deep”your movement vocabulary is not there to build some “contemporary dance-ness”constructed through recognizable dance techniques. Rather your work allows the body to act weirdly. Allows the shoulder blades to rise to visibility. Shows a human body in ways we don’t yet imagine it. I find your work queering contemporary dance and the bodies who habitually perform contemporary dance. There are these things in your choreography, almost like breaks in the matrix, that break the image of normative dancer-bodies in your pieces. The “Western-trained beautiful white dancer”-bodies where there is nothing that would stick in the beholder’s eye.

A: That goes straight to the point. This research started in 1988 when I studied dance in the Theater Academy. We had ballet in the curriculum, and my shoulder blades got a lot of attention. They were supposed to beautifully align with the back. And mine really stick out. I was supposed to hold them in place to achieve an “elegant back”. A level back. That’s not what the human back looks like, but a dancer’s back should be.

Your body is supposed to please the eye. That pissed me off. My body is my body. So that became my research. That which doesn’t fit a certain aesthetics is a “fault”. But since it’s my body, my own, I can make something out of that “fault”. So I played with my shoulder blades and doing it sometimes I was messing with my ballet teacher, too. I’ve made two or three projects with this idea. In the 80’s and the 90’s, where I was looking at being in a body, breaking down an aesthetics. So yes, this is one of the major themes in “Deep”.

M: Interesting to realize how personal and how concrete it is.

A: It is indeed. When students are taught dance technique, when they are challenged to make a skill theirs, to make movement look in a certain way, very often that dancer, that poor student, gets lost in their own body trying to fulfill external expectations. I was somewhat older when I begun my studies at the Theater Academy, and we had other teachers too, other subjects, free dance, movement, improvisation, that gave me the idea to study my own body and what kind of movement my body will produce. That’s what is my art. And surprisingly, after a year and half of that, when I was cast in a piece choreographed by Tommi Kitti, a virtuoso dancer, it was not that hard anymore to perform his movement. That was kind of a heureka-moment, that I did pretty well dancing in his piece.

M: I know that you’ll come to San Francisco with a lighting designer. Do you always have a designer traveling with you?

A: I always go with a lighting designer. Preferably both lighting and sound designer. It would be impossible to tour Deep without him. There’s video that needs to be run in the show, as well. And since we are showing the piece in various spaces with varying levels of equipment he’s doing problem shooting for us.

M: I think that the level of lighting design in Finland is very high. They go through a selective MFA program, and consequently have killer skills and a creative attitude. In your experience, having toured on many continents, is the relationship between choreographers and lighting designers somehow special in Finland?

A: Oh yes. The programs for lighting design and dance were started at the same time in the Theater Academy. The programs started off as neighbors physically in the early eighties.[1] There was a lot of synergy and collaboration. And dance as art form is such it gives lighting designers an opportunity to experiment and to create worlds. Lighting designers themselves say that their branch has developed thanks to dance. Theater, drama, didn’t grant the same opportunities because there was the story, the script, and often it’s day and night and such inside those salons, you know.

So what the lighting designers themselves say is that their art in Finland developed with, and even thanks to dance. They’ve had the opportunity to experiment with the possibilities of light because dance is created out of nothing. The creative group develops ideas together, visual artist, lighting designer, costume designer, that shared process lets you be creative on another level.

M: Looking at your work online, and other Finnish choreographers’ work as well, it looks visually compelling, not least thanks to lighting. The light is not merely creating moods, it’s more than choosing the colored gel, it’s there to sculpt 3-dimensional space and to hint at worlds, meanings.

A: Lighting has functions beyond making visible. There is something of the gesamtkunstwerk, the lighting never merely lights the stage or decorates it. It has a central function in creating content and themes.

M: Matti Jykylä has designed light for Deep?

A: Matti has designed the light, but Deep has a longer history. Milla Moilanen and I made a short film in 95. Milla had made the script, and I choreographed it, and we developed the script, and I danced it. When she had an art show in Washington in 2000 she asked me to perform Deep live there. I choreographed a 12 minute solo, and was showing it in galleries in Finland the same year already. I think it was in 2001 when I made a stage version of it. Developed the piece further. At that point I had an idea of “frames”, and Matti saw the piece and loved it. I asked if he would design lights for it, for what we had I had designed myself. I wanted to develop the piece, so he came onboard.

The lighting is extremely simple. There is no tripping with technology, just basic lighting equipment, and we are trying to take all out of that. Since then I have been performing Deep, for over a decade. During the first years, every time we would show it, after the show there was something we wanted to tweak, small things, the piece kept maturing.

Deep has such a strong identity that it can be changed, I’ve even performed it in Galleries without light design, and it will work. But of course, a stage will pose its own demands, and you will need a stage version.

M: Do you want to talk about your sexual identity, and how it plays in your art and art making?

To paint a backdrop to my question: I perceive a vast difference in the cultures of San Francisco and Helsinki in this aspect. San Francisco has a long history of gay, lesbian, trans, queer -culture. Sexual identity is right there on the surface of much of the art here. This website (the off center) has hosted a web-salon of articles on around that topic. A lot of art made here right now explores queer histories and embodiment. Different art genres mix. Being in the art scene seems to almost be an extension of identities, where making and consuming art is just one part of the feast. Meanwhile, in Finland – as far as I know, and things could have changed while I’ve lived elsewhere – there are dance artists of various sexual identities, as everyone in the scene acknowledges. That is never even mentioned. People gather around the making and receiving dance. People create very different contexts.

A: I grew up in a village of a few thousand inhabitants. When I was young- I was born in 1958 – nobody thought of dance as an art form. It didn’t exist. No one talked about sexual identities, minorities, about anything in general. There might have been the crazy person, the weird person, but nobody ever talked about what they were. The words for these didn’t exist. When I started dancing it was folk dance and dancing in theater productions. Dancing was OK as long as I was folk dancing, but when my interests grew beyond that it became too much. I even stopped dancing at the age 15-16. The pressure – well, not exactly pressure – well, peer pressure which is part of a certain age when young people need to make part of a group: be the same way, do the same things as all your friends. It’s a huge thing in that age when you realize that you’re just not interested in the same things as your friends are, and then to be thought of as a weirdo by everyone because of something like dance.

As for my sexual identity, I didn’t even know what I was myself at that point. Or maybe I did know, but couldn’t come out as I didn’t know what it was. Nobody knew then, you simply never heard that word. It did not exist. So you just try to live day by day the same way everyone else is living. Later on it’s hard when it all breaks through to you, to receive it all. First process it yourself, then rethink all the relationships you have with your family and your extended family. And this is what we all have to go through in our own way, there’s nothing special in my story.

Eventually I made the choice myself. I lived alone, in celibacy for ten years or so. Around the time I quit my job and started studying dance it became clear to me that I have to live my own life. (I realized) that I could be in any profession – I was a social worker, had a job in an orphanage, I was a professional in child development there, that’s a very very different work environment where I had a tremendous responsibility for the children there. Everything just exploded in my life when I got into the dance program. Of course, your identity is a fundamental thing.

People often say that the piece that broke me through to the dance scene in Finland was “Guardian of the Night” (Yönvartija) which I made in 1992 for 6 male dancers. In it I question maleness, it’s obvious. It creates a different idea of “male” than what I had perceived in contemporary dance. What I wanted was specifically a community of men, men as people with various energies and emotions between themselves. I wanted to show men as human, not as produced by some stereotype that dictates a male should be this or that. Just like a woman, man is a person that feels, senses, is fragile, and anything at all – toward another man. I think many dance professionals saw this in the piece and gave me feed back on it. I’d say the audiences in general saw this. Audiences loved “Guardian of the Night”, and many told me that they had never seen dance with such male roles. I don’t know if it was conscious or subliminal, but I’m sure people felt the possibilities within the piece, but of course no one ever labeled it as “gay art”. And I made “Together”, a duet about a relationship between two men. I don’t like to preach in my art. I take up the same issues, but I don’t need my art to serve some political movement or ideology. “Together” came from my heart, I wanted to show that the issues are the same regardless of if it’s two men, a man and a woman, or who ever. And the audiences bought it, they liked it.

M: Do you see sexual identities being central to some choreographers or being taken up in artistic work in Finland? I have not seen that much there, but maybe things have changed.

A: I don’t think that has changed. Tuomo Railo and Simo Heiskanen (two queer dance artists that have been active in Finland for over 15 years) did two openly gay pieces in the late 90’s. They publicly stated that the work was about making homo-duets. Other than that, I haven’t heard of anything, haven’t read of anything. It looks like Finnish dancers are extremely careful, even frightful, of taking part in discussion. I don’t mean to say everybody should start to foam at mouth, I don’t think such actions even reach the goals people have. But the shyness is not only regarding sexuality, it’s more general. Some kind of fright of verbalizing opinions in public discussion. People say things in private but there is a thought that you end up black listed if you open your mouth and question how institutions function, that you ruin your career that way. Of course that’s not how it works! For me you don’t have to make opinionated art, for my part you can make art about ants and spring flowers, but that people don’t voice their opinions in a discussion, I don’t get it. But yes, there is some kind of self-censorship in our Finnish culture.

M: I hear two things in what you are saying, one is that fear of raising one’s voice which I absolutely recognize from the Finnish scene and general environment. Fear of other people’s reactions. The other thing is that our culture is super macho, I think. That even if we all know that not everyone conforms to the hetero-normative identity, it’s not something that will be discussed, or if it is, the level of the discussion won’t be much. A few choreographers, apart from you and the ones you mentioned, have taken up masculinity and male-roles, but I don’t find those works to really question the normative macho male.

A: That is true.

But I think the discussion and attitudes took strides forward during the last Presidential election in 2012. Pekka Haavisto of the Green Party was one of the two major candidates and received something like 1.3 million votes[2]. And he’s openly homosexual and married to an Ecuadorean hair stylist, you know. That amount of votes is so massive in Finland that there was something of how many people there actually are in Finland whose values a a bit more liberal. Their ideas about what a person is. That election had an enormous meaning in Finland, I think there is already a change emerging in the public discourse and in people’s attitudes.

There were polls made about the new cohabitation and marriage law, and clearly more than half of the population is in favor of same sex marriage.

Mind you, attitudes are the last to change. We have our ways, it’s impossible to force people to change. There is personal fear and all kinds of not understanding. I’ve sometimes asked that “how do you think that same sex marriage would affect your life?” “Not at all!” is then the answer. Why then, what reason is there to be against it? It’s just something that has been rooted in people for decades of their lives through religion and everything, something everything in life is based upon. It takes time to change that. Somehow one must find a way to be merciful. It’s just awful, if you’ve been “sick”, like I have been, or “a criminal”, it’s hard to digest why I still just have to understand them. But that’s how it is. That’s how people are.

M: One more question before you go to sleep?

You’ve been a social worker and a Green Party candidate for the Helsinki City Council. For me this is quite logical, that you are an artist and have done these things, that you are a person that wants to change things, wants to bring something to people. Can you say something about it, that you have chosen to do all these things in your life? Does it influence how you make art? Does it tell us something about what kind of a person and an artist you are?

A: For the first it does tell quite a lot about what kind of a person I am. (Laughs)

Maybe I haven’t really chosen. I studied social work, I have three different degrees, specializing in youth and in family counseling. I worked five years in a children’s home with families and their children, with families where parents had lost their guardianship or under threat of loosing it. In a way it was a choice, but not my calling. That’s just the education I had, like I said there was no specific route to become a dancer, I didn’t know how to. The dance program in Theater Academy only started in 1982. I had always danced, had always taken classes, but you had to have a proper profession.

It felt good to work with people. I ended up working in the children’s home which was a great job. I learned a lot about life. I met people from different classes and saw their problems, and saw that whatever you are, a judge, an alcoholic, a priest, they had the same problems as anybody had. So I worked with them to help them solve their problems.

The only choice I have made, the only clear choice was that I chose dance. In that children’s house a psychologist and I organized dance therapy for youth. That made me realize how dance was a channel for me to express myself and to realize my being.

At that time, and still is, traditional therapy is the main therapeutic modality, there might be some visual art. But I noticed that when we got the people to move their bodies, the gates started to open, stuff started to come out, from some children and adolescents in strong bursts. At that point it’s possible to start talking about the bad feelings too, to give names to things. If it’s even necessary to name things.

That made me realize I needed more education. At that time there was no Dance Therapy program in Finland, I ended up on a 4 month dance teacher course, I took leave from my job. What happened there, I had a traditional modern training, Graham technique, was that there I found my own inner blocks. Improvisation was hard, all through the class I was just hoping the class would come to an end. It was horrible. I was afraid to go to the improvs. Of course: nobody will tell you anything, or show what to do, no one will tell you what is right or wrong. That made me understand how much I had bottled up inside myself.

And to be looked at (as dancers are looked at), all of a sudden I thought, for God’s sake, I’m taking care of people who have this same problem, who are unable to express themselves, and it seems to be me who needs therapy. Meanwhile I was functioning perfectly in the society and everything, but that realization of the power of dance and movement stopped me. Almost at that moment I decided I need to see where that path will take me. I had kept dance as a “hobby”. I decided to quit my job. Our cohort visited the dance program at Theater Academy, that’s when I saw the program was there. I quit my two shift job and concentrated on applying to the school, I knew it was a place for me. I had a day job teaching kids who had been sent back to day care from grade 1, who weren’t mature enough to handle elementary school. I took dance classes in the evenings.

People have often asked me why I don’t create dance performances about the fates of people I met through my job. You can imagine the stories. Incest, substance abuse, violence. I was pretty young to take care of such stuff. Why don’t I make art out of that? If you have really been responsible for 3 years for some 12-year old you will understand that their life depends on how well you do your job. How do I take care of this, how do I see the child and her family forward? Should I make choices for them, should I put the child into a foster home or into another institution, would she be OK living with her parents? It’s not easy to choreograph that.

What I always say is that I see my work contributing to the same issues, but from the other end, from the preventing end. Instead of trying to repair the damage I make art. For me art is most of all social work of the preventing kind.

I agreed to run to the Helsinki City Council because of this. The Green Party had already asked me before, but at that time I had to cancel because I went through a separation and then my mother fell ill. This time was a better time. And I did well for a first timer.

I agreed to run because I wanted to influence art policies in Helsinki, especially from the point of view of what can be done to prevent problems at schools and in families. Deducting from my experiences in social work I know there’s a lot that can be done if we talk about problems at school or families that are falling into the margins of the society. We have to go to the day care centers to the schools, and work with the families. This is where the arts are strong, especially dance. With dance you also get music, rhythm, physical exercise, it’s social, you get to know your own body, another’s body, you are physically close to someone – all of these elements in one. And I wanted to influence art policies, we are stuck in the 1970’s-80’s in terms of support and funding for dance.

What looks good now is that I created networks with the Green Party representatives, but also people from other parties, there are channels to influence though I didn’t make it to the council.

Minna Harri is a San Francisco based dance artist with a Finnish nationality.



[box class=”grey_box”] About ALPO AALTOKOSKI – Alpo Aaltokoski (b.1958) majored in choreography and graduated as a Master or Arts from the Department of Dance at the Finnish Theatre Academy in 1991. During his career, Aaltokoski has created dozens of works which have been received with great acclaim. These include, for example, the solos De Una Semilla (1995) and Steps behind the voices (1999), and the group works Lucid Dreaming (2005), Guardian of the Night (1992 and 2001), Sahara (2002), Promises (2001).

His poignant dance works, which often study the variety and cyclical nature of life, have been moving audiences since 1991. Mostly because of his former work as a social worker, Aaltokoski has presented important human themes in his art: the inevitability of abandonment and death, the yearning to leave one’s own footprints, which, however, finally disappear and become part of a larger landscape, the importance of the subconscious and privacy but also the power of community.

In addition to the great human subjects, Alpo Aaltokoski has concentrated among other things on profoundly ritualistic and flowing studies of movement. Since the 1990s his interest has widened even further, to the seamless fusion of dance and other kinds of visual art. Audiovisual elements, especially video, have acquired for themselves an independent role in the artist’s enthusiasm for constructing visions of everyday life as well as illusions of reality that expand thought.  Alpo Aaltokoski is one of the founding members of Nomadi Productions.[/box]


[1] The lighting design program has since been relocated to Tampere, some 2 hours from Helsinki but collaboration is still tight.

[2] Alpo is probably talking about the first round results. The Finnish presidential election is performed in two rounds that are two weeks apart. The two candiates that receive the most votes continue to the second round. In the second round of the 2012 election the winner Niinistö got 1 802 328 votes, 62,6 % of all votes. The Green Party candidate Pekka Haaviston received 1 077 425votes, 37,4 % of all votes. The moderately conservative candidate Sauli Niinistö got 724 903 votes more than Pekka Haavisto. Finland is a nation of 5.5 million citizens.


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